Several years ago, government officials acknowledged that the nefarious intelligence gathering entity known as the National Security Agency (NSA) had exceeded its legal authority by eavesdropping on Americans’ private e-mail messages and phone calls. However, these reports barely scratch the surface of what we are coming to recognize as a “security/industrial complex” — a marriage of government, military and corporate interests aimed at keeping Americans under constant surveillance.
The increasingly complex security needs of our massive federal government, especially in the areas of defense, surveillance and data management, have been met within the corporate sector, which has shown itself to be a powerful ally that both depends on and feeds the growth of governmental bureaucracy. For example, USA Today reports that five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the homeland security business was booming to such an extent that it eclipsed mature enterprises like movie-making and the music industry in annual revenue. This security spending by the government to private corporations is forecast to exceed $1 trillion in the near future.
Money, power, control. There is no shortage of motives fueling the convergence of mega-corporations and government. But who will pay the price? The American people, of course, and you can be sure that it will take a toll on more than our pocketbooks.
Americans have been conditioned to accept routine incursions on their privacy rights. However, at one time, the idea of a total surveillance state tracking one’s every move would have been abhorrent to most Americans. That all changed with the 9/11 attacks. We have, so to speak, gone from being a nation where privacy is king to one where nothing is safe from the prying eyes of government. In search of terrorists hiding amongst us — the proverbial “needle in a haystack,” as one official termed it — the government has taken to monitoring all aspects of our lives, from cell phone calls and e-mails to Internet activity and credit card transactions.
Users are profiled and tracked in order to identify, target and even prosecute them. In such a climate, everyone is a suspect. And you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.
Here’s what a lot of people fail to understand, however: it’s not just what you say or do that is being monitored, but how you think that is being tracked and targeted. We’ve already seen this play out on the state and federal level with hate crime legislation that cracks down on hateful thoughts and expression in order to discourage so-called hateful behavior.
Total Internet surveillance is merely the next logical step in the government’s attempts to predict and, more importantly, control the populace — and it’s not as far-fetched as you might think.
For example, the NSA is now designing an artificial intelligence system that is designed to anticipate your every move. In a nutshell, the NSA will feed vast amounts of the information it collects to a computer system known as Aquaint (the acronym stands for Advanced QUestion Answering for INTelligence), which the computer can then use to detect patterns and predict behavior. No information is sacred or spared. Everything from cell phone recordings and logs, to e-mails, to text messages, to personal information posted on social networking sites, to credit card statements, to library circulation records, to credit card histories, etc., is collected by the NSA. One NSA researcher actually quit the program, “citing concerns over the dangers in placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of a top-secret agency with little accountability.”
Unfortunately, our somnambulant Congress is not heeding this warning. Legislation is presently making its way through Congress that is aimed at giving the president the authority to declare a cybersecurity emergency and limit or shut down the Internet altogether, as well as enable unprecedented federal oversight of private network administration.
The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 would authorize the creation of a Cybersecurity Czar to centralize power now held by the Pentagon, NSA, DHS and Department of Commerce. It would also require so-called “standards” to be established for private companies, as well as licensing and certification of cybersecurity professionals. Once the government is granted the authority to regulate the Internet and its users, which is what this legislation would ostensibly do, the ability to freely speak up and protest will be virtually wiped out.
So where does this leave us? If we’ve already been under surveillance for years, largely without our knowledge, what does it matter anyway? And can anything really be done to avoid moving into a total surveillance state? Frankly, technology has developed to such a point that it has outstripped the ability of human beings to control it. It has become virtually autonomous. And in the hands of government, technology is largely working against us now — except for the Internet, the freedom highway where democracy still lives. It remains, for now, our last holdout in this insidious slide towards totalitarianism.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.